U.S. Senate

Mitch McConnell's Jekyll-and-Hyde Act

His fiercely partisan tactics inside the Senate are fueling the demand for the extremist candidates he's trying to stop.

Oh, did I do that?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mitch McConnell probably thinks he's done all he can in recent years to keep Roy Moore and candidates like him from entering the United States Senate. He's right -- and he's also dead wrong. When it come to his relationship with the Republican Party, McConnell has a Jekyll-and-Hyde act going on. It's wearing awful thin right now. 

Most recently, McConnell led the national party opposition to Moore in the special election primary against appointed Senator Luther Strange, including apparently recruiting President Donald Trump to Strange's side. Sure, he accepted Moore as the nominee when the results came in, but he was also quick to join the "if true" group (that is, condemning Moore if the accusations turned out to be accurate), and moved fairly rapidly to declaring "I believe the women" and calling on Moore to drop out.

Over the last several election cycles, McConnell has steadfastly labored to stop radicals and other poor candidates from winning primaries, including the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. While he failed -- along with the rest of Republican party elites -- to settle on an alternative candidate, he deserves credit. His actions go farther than just mere lip service. There's no question that he has spent years fighting against Tea Party excess and radicalism within his party

When Primary Election McConnell 's work is done, Senate Republican Leader McConnell's begins. This side of the Kentucky senator is constantly grinding away at institutional norms and respect for standards of civility for the sake of partisan gain. 

Who is most responsible for the 60-vote Senate, the condition in which absolutely everything gets filibustered? 1  Republican Leader McConnell.

Who has resorted to secrecy in the legislative process far more than any leader of the modern Senate? Republican Leader McConnell. 2

Who has undermined norms of civility, most notably by claiming that defeating President Barack Obama (and not, say, improving the lives of Americans) was his highest priority? And also has generally been as eager to use harsh language as most of his Republican colleagues? Republican Leader McConnell.

He's not the first extremely partisan Senate Majority Leader -- Dole, George Mitchell, Harry Reid and others all contributed to partisan polarization within the chamber. But he's taken it farther than anyone else. Reid at the very least was willing to go through the motions of soliciting Republican cooperation with Democratic bills (and his Democrats were willing to accept Republican contributions). McConnell doesn't even pretend. 

The problem is that everything Leader McConnell has done for the last decade and more has thoroughly undermined what Primary Election McConnell tries to do.

This really is a case of not being able to have it both ways. Not in the facile sense, so often claimed but wrong, that a politician supposedly can't take opposite sides of the same issue or trumpet one principle only to betray it in the next action. Politicians do that all the time, with no apparent damage. No, the problem for McConnell is that the way he leads Senate Republicans is making the problem he fights in primaries much harder. Procedural extremism, for example, doesn't satisfy party activists; it just creates the expectation that any party majority, no matter how slim, will always bulldoze the minority, and that the failure to do so must be a failure of nerves or preferences by that majority, especially their leader. 

And so McConnell is helping to create the very backlash he's trying so hard to control. It's also made him a pariah -- certainly not popular among Democrats, but disliked by many Republicans as well, targeted by Moore, Steve Bannon and other radicals, and only occasionally on friendly terms with the Republican president. We'll never know whether Republican party actors who knew better could have pushed harder against the forces within their party which, as Jim VandeHei of Axios put it, drove politics crazy. But McConnell certainly has proved that fueling the fire while hoping not to get burned doesn't work. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Others certainly helped make filibusters frequent; when Bob Dole as minority leader in 1993 decided to filibuster all major legislation, that was a big step that built on some Democratic filibusters before, and filibustering continued building momentum during Democratic opposition to George W. Bush's nominations and legislation. But McConnell busted through all the remaining barriers. 

  2. It's not unusual for final versions of a bill to take to the Senate floor to be negotiated behind closed doors, and Democratic leader Harry Reid did plenty of that. But moving to that point without hearings or a serious committee markup is a significant step beyond what Reid and others had done.

     

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE
Comments